In 1968 I left my family in Pittsburgh for college and parts unknown. Nine years later I left Bloomington, Ind., with my doctorate for a university and a town I'd never heard of (Carbondale, Ill.). I figured I'd be there for five years to build my resume and then leave for more urban surroundings.
After 30 years or so as a professor, I retired to a town that surprised me as well as anyone else I knew.
I had the opportunity to move wherever I wanted. We looked in great detail at Nashville (never move north of where you are is still good advice) but while enticed by the culture we were horrified by the prices. About five other cities made sense in some way or another, but in the end we picked Paducah.
I've never really looked back - even given my professorial duty (and perhaps penchant) for finding things wrong!
As it turns out, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out why Paducah works. I think there are three answers - answers that are found as one finds the individual tiles in a mosaic assembled to create a full picture.
My first visits to Paducah were irregular and rare. I could shop or find health care in Carbondale or Cape Girardeau. What I did first notice was that the people in the mall were dressed better (though not expensively) than in other regional malls. As I came to spend more time here, I found people invariably polite and friendly. The slower pace drove my East Coast personality nuts, but I could see the value.
By the time our daughter was born, we were coming here for entertainment, restaurants and medical care. When she was born there was a medical concern that she needed one more day of hospital observation. I still remember the day the administrator came in and told us our insurance had run out, but if we stayed the extra day they would pay for it "if you would pay for the Tylenol."
I was pretty dumbfounded. Of course, we took the offer, but in the next millisecond I thought, "This would never happen up north!" And that is the first answer to why Paducah works. Things change when you cross the river. The cultural differences between the South and the North are created by the geography of the Ohio River, and Paducah is the first town of the South when you leave Chicago.
By 2004 we were regular visitors, and I had the vague idea that there was some money and economic stability in this town though I couldn't find it. I saw two fine hospitals, some nice houses, but I also saw some rundown areas. I eventually understood what the USEC plant meant for Paducah, and then it slowly occurred to me that the river industry was a quiet contributor.
I am regularly amazed by the odd details of the river and transportation industries. We have the "largest flat top crane" in North America (whatever that is), we are the northernmost frost-free inland port in the USA, we build and sell locomotives to Saudi Arabia. Heck, there is even a company making deep-sea diving bells next door in Ballard County.
So I came to find, not only do things change when you cross the river, where you cross the river makes a difference in what you can become. Paducah is in the right place, and over time it has made some of the right economic decisions to create a town that has a larger feel than a passing visitor might ever suspect.
In 2005, on pure intuition, we moved into a 1908 Victorian house in a marginal area. We decided to take a chance and move into the house because something seemed right about the city and the house was as perfect in its woodwork and construction as the day it was built.
However, there were drug houses 50 yards from us and a murder a few blocks away. What amazed me was the way the police department was handling this area. They had placed two policemen on a beat to patrol the area and were effective in their "knock and talk" program with the drug houses. As time went on, they were able to reduce it to one full-time officer, and not long after, the area was incorporated into the normal routine.
"H'mm," I thought, "somebody is paying attention."
The Paducah community does pay attention. The Artist Relocation Program is at the top of the most visible list of paying attention to things. The Fountain Avenue Project is quietly developing maturity. The Carson Center, The Paducah Symphony, Market House Theatre, two childrens' choruses, dance and theater schools for kids, the first associate of arts degree via the Paducah School of Art and Design are just some examples of a cultural sense that is larger than anyone might expect.
And the food scene, whether at the corporate restaurants by the mall or my favorite locally owned ones downtown, is quite fine.
I can't believe the level of donations to help make the community better. One family decides to donate the family house to fund a Habitat for Humanity Home, another person lends a former top-end restaurant facility to help a community kitchen expand. Somebody decides to blend food and community service into a fantastic BBQ on the River. Others fund an endowment for the Carson Center, someone helps create a hospiceâ ¦the list goes on.
So why is Paducah paying so much more attention than other communities? A recent meeting with a former student captures the answer to the question. I met him when he was a student in one of my graduate classes. He had gone to Tilghman High School, graduated from an Ivy League college, and set as his goal to learn as much about his discipline as he could - so he could come back home to make Paducah better.
That is the third key to the town's success: Paducah is about family. During my 30 years teaching graduate school in Carbondale, I had one student who was born in the town arrive in my class. One! Carbondale is such a transient town. Old houses are chopped up for student rentals and then become abandoned eyesores. The children leave town. It relies on a single economic engine, the university, to function. The town never finds its soul.
However, if you view your town as your family, you take care of your old houses, you develop an intellectual and artistic culture that makes your life richer, you help those who need help, and you keep pushing for its development because you know that will make your family life better. So I find I have a new family, and just like Pittsburgh, it's on the Ohio.
Bill Coscarelli is a professor emeritus from Southern Illinois University in education. He consults for corporations and other clients in training and evaluation.
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